Craftsmen, companies bring consumers into creative process in Japan

The Yomiuri Shimbun

When companies and consumers walk hand-in-hand in the creation of a product, it produces brand loyalty. At a time when values are diversifying and hot-sellers are difficult to predict, a new trend has started with this kind of “process consumption.”

‘Sushi’ served

A man is hunched over a wooden desk, his face almost hidden as he painstakingly attaches crushed shell fragments to a piece of black lacquerware.

The streaming video offers no explanation of what he is doing. It just shows him plugging away at the task for almost an hour, the polar opposite of popular YouTubers who fill their videos with impressive sound effects and incessant commentary.

The video was taken in the workshop of Yasuhiro Asai, 38, a lacquer craftsman based in Ukyo Ward, Kyoto. During a livestream in December, a beep would sound as an incoming message from a viewer saying things like “Keep it up!” was displayed. Asai would stop and respond “Thank you!”

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Yui Sato, left, of Kameda Seika Co. samples a prototype of a sugar-free Happy Turn snack.

A short time later, he gets a message, “Sushi is served.” It’s not the real thing, but an illustration sent as a token of support from a viewer.

The livestream puts Asai’s skills as an artisan on display in exhaustive detail, which lovers of traditional crafts find irresistible, undeterred by the modest production. He has built up a loyal following, with that day’s broadcast drawing more than 30 viewers.

Helping to produce the livestream is a start-up based in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward called Alu Inc., which offers its 00:00 Studio (four-zero studio) as the platform. The objective is “to help creators earn a little money just by doing what they normally do,” said President Kensuke Furukawa, 40, who started the company about a year ago.

Viewers purchase points in advance which they present to creators as gifts. The “sushi” was a visual symbol of those points, and is one way viewers can contribute to streamers they want to support, much like tossing coins into a shrine offering box.

The points are converted into cash through the studio and paid to the creators.

The number of users has steadily increased and come from a wide range of fields, from manga artists to novelists, musicians to programmers. The fact that people were spending more time at home due to the pandemic only added wind to the sails. It filled a “need” for a quiet way to enjoy watching the professional production process.

“It’s fun because there are niche craftsman you don’t normally see,” said one woman who watches livestreams daily.

People can also request items. She had an original story penned by her favorite writer before her very eyes for ¥3,000.

By expanding the opportunities for creators to generate income by acquiring fans, it will increase their motivation to create. Better creations in turn will lead to more fans, creating a virtuous cycle.

Lower risk of failure

Entrepreneurs and companies can better reduce the risk of failure by developing products while observing consumer reactions, rather than spending long periods of time on market research.

“Fan purchases” is becoming an effective means. This involves using crowdfunding, which raises funds from a large number of random people, who purchase a product before development is completed.

According to the crowdfunding site Makuake Inc., the aggregate value of fan purchases made from April to September 2021 was ¥11.7 billion, a 3.8-fold increase from two years earlier. The number of projects also greatly expanded, roughly tripling to 4,400.

Companies of all sizes are taking this path.

“Commercial sales were already declining, then we took a second hit from the pandemic,” said Kazunari Honma, 51, president of Honma Seisakujo in Tsubame, Niigata Prefecture, which sells cooking utensils for upscale hotels and restaurants.

To open a new sales channel, the company decided to start targeting households in 2020.

Honma Seisakujo had been mainly a wholesaler, and had little idea what consumers actually wanted. Through crowdfunding, it recruited people looking for household bowls and colanders. With increased demand from people staying at home, the response was positive and the target amount was quickly reached.

About 80-90% of the process was done in-house, and for the rest, it solicited suggestions from supporters. The development process was a kind of three-legged race combining the company and its customers.

Suggestions from consumers, such as changes to the handle, could be immediately incorporated, and the finished product was shipped to market about three months later. This was much faster than for its commercial items, which usually take two or three years from the time they appear in a catalog to when they reach the user.

Taste testers take turn

Kameda Seika Co., a major maker of rice-based snacks, is working with customers to develop a sugar-free version of its popular salty-sweet Happy Turn product.

Prototypes are being sold on a crowdfunding site to 500 people, and their views will be used in refining the product.

“For a long time people have been saying they want less powder,” said Yui Sato, 28, one of five young employees who formed the project team. “We decided to listen to the voices of our customers in developing a new product.”

For ¥5,000, purchasers get four bags of the current product, which sell for just under ¥200 each, along with 10 bags of the sugar-free prototype. Despite the higher price, sales were more than twice the initial target in the preorder stage.

“The opportunity to participate in the development led to sales,” Sato said.